At this point in my life, I greet each morning with gratitude for all of the gifts I’ve been given and for the ancestors and wise beings who have been a guiding and protective presence. I ask only that they help me hold center with compassion, patience, and integrity in good times and bad as I walk my path, perhaps chosen consciously in a previous lifetime. I try to follow the wisdom conveyed by the Ojibwe principle of “doing things when the time is right,” and I hope that this is the right time to share where I am in my manuscript editing journey.
This morning I awoke with a deep but gentle sorrow and tears in my eyes thinking about what my ancestors endured, and what too many people around the globe are experiencing now because we have failed to learn from the past.
In a few days, November 24, 2022, people in the United States will be celebrating Thanksgiving. It’s a holiday meant to honor the sharing of food and companionship between colonists fleeing from oppression in England and the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island (now referred to as North America). But a mere three centuries after that romanticized celebration of unity, the following excepts describe the consequences of hospitality for those who helped the new arrivals survive.
This post will not be an easy read for those with tender hearts. It’s drawn from the chapter that stopped my editing process eight years ago. I often say I stopped because I was too busy teaching. That’s partly true. Mostly I stopped because it was too difficult for me to set aside my deep sorrow each week in order to be fully present for students. Yet my muse tells me it’s time to move on, and time to share these excepts with others.
Although centuries of colonial domination affected all aspects of the lives of Native American people, the effects were, in Peter’s* language, “off the radar.” Few outside of tribal communities knew about the dire conditions Indigenous people endured before 1928. That was the year the “Miriam Report” was published, 891 pages in length, documenting the social and economic conditions of tribes. The report,
… revealed an existence filled with poverty, suffering, and discontent. Indians suffered from disease and malnutrition, had a life expectancy of only forty-four years, and had an average annual per capita income of only one hundred dollars. The report reached two basic conclusions: (1) The BIA ** [Bureau of Indian Affairs] was inadequately meeting the needs of Indians, especially in the areas of health and education; and (2) Indians were being excluded from the management of their own affairs. (O’Brien, 1989, pp. 80-81)
The conditions for children and families documented in the Miriam Report have direct links to the present issues that Carrie* [the tribal child welfare coordinator], Peter* [a State regional field representative who worked with countries and tribes], and Karen* [the counselor for the tribal alcohol and drug addiction treatment program] described in their interviews. Given the crucial importance of the issues the Miriam Report researchers covered, excerpts from the report follow. The excepts also illustrate how prevailing beliefs and perspectives at the time the study was conducted influence the interpretations and analyses reported by otherwise highly qualified and objective researchers.
Family and Community Development. The Indian Service has not appreciated the fundamental importance of family life and community activities in the social and economic development of a people. The long continued policy of removing children from the home and placing them for years in boarding school largely disintegrates the family and interferes with developing normal family life. The belief has apparently been that the shortest road to civilization is to take children away from their parents and insofar as possible to stamp out the old Indian life. The Indian community activities particularly have often been opposed if not suppressed. The fact has been appreciated that both the family life and the community activities have many objectionable features, but the action taken has often been the radical one of attempting to destroy rather than the educational process of gradual modification and development” (p. 15) …
Strains Imposed by the System of Education. Indian families are subjected to peculiar strains growing out of their relation to the government. Some of the projects of the government, notably the appointment of field workers to deal with home conditions, have tended to strengthen family bonds. But on the whole government practices may be said to have operated against the development of wholesome family life.
Chief of these is the long continued policy of educating the children in boarding schools far from their homes, taking them from their parents when small and keeping them away until parents and children become strangers to each other. The theory was once held that the problem of the race could be solved by educating the children, not to return to the reservation, but to be absorbed one by one into the white population. This plan involved the permanent breaking of family ties, but provided the for the children a substitute for their own family life by placing them in good homes of whites for vacations and sometimes longer, the so-called “outing system.” The plan failed, partly because it was weak on the vocational side, but largely by reason of its artificiality. Nevertheless, this worst of its features still persists, and many children today have not seen their parents or brothers and sisters in years… (pp. 573-574) …
The real tragedy, however, is not loss by death but the disruption of family life and its effect on the character of both parents and children. The personal care of helpless offspring is the natural expression of affection no less among Indians than among parents of other races. No observer can doubt that Indian parents are very fond of their children, and though the care they give may be from the point of view of white parents far from adequate, yet the emotional needs of both parents and children are satisfied… (p. 575)…
Effects of the System upon Children. The effects of early depravation of family life are apparent in the children. They too are the victims of an arrested development. The experience of the white race abundantly demonstrates that institutional children, even with the best of care, have greater health and personality difficulties than children in families. Affection of an intimate sort is essential to development. Recognizing this fact the better societies for the care of dependent white children have for many years been placing their wards out in families as rapidly as the very delicate adjustment involved can be made. Even in institutions for the care of dependent white children the children are there because they have no homes or because normal home life is impossible, and very few are taken forcibly from their parents. But many children are in Indian schools as the result of coercion of one kind or another and they suffer under a sense of separation from home and parents. Since initiative and independence are not developed under the rigid routine of the school, the whole system increases the child’s sentiment for dependence on parental decisions and children in their teens go back to their mother with a six-year old’s feeling for her.
Under normal conditions the experience of family life is of itself a preparation for future parenthood. Without this experience of the parent-child relation throughout the developmental period Indian young people must suffer under a serious disability in their relations with their own children. No kind of formal training can possibly make up for this lack, nor can the outing system when the child is half grown supplement what he has missed in his own family and with his own race in earlier years. (pp. 576-577).
This is just an except from one chapter of a rather long manuscript to try to show a small part of the legacy of loss that has continued to affect each generation of Native Americans in the US, as it did for me this morning and many other times in my life. It’s a deep, often unhealed, wound survivors of genocide and colonial domination carry and pass on to the next generations.
I don’t have the answers for resolving these issues. Perhaps I will have a few ideas when I finish editing my manuscript. But for now, I offer this post in hopes that it will inspire others to be both grateful for the gifts they have been given and compassionate for those who suffer.
* Note that these are not people’s real names.
** Here’s a link for more information about the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA): https://www.bia.gov/bia
Sharon O’Brien, American Indian Tribal Governments (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989), pp. 80-81.
Lewis Meriam and Others, The Problem of Indian Administration. Report of a Survey Made at the Request of Honorable Hubert Work, Secretary of the Interior, and Submitted to Him, February 21, 1928. (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1928).
In loving memory of my mother, a gentle and gifted healer, who was born on an Ojibwe reservation on March 1, 1921, and died on October 10, 2010, just before what would have been her 89th Thanksgiving.
My mother, age 7, before removal to a Catholic-run Indian Boarding School
My mother on her Confirmation Day. It wasn’t until her later years during the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease that she told me how much she hated the Catholic Church because of what they did to her. She never shared those stories.
My mother at home after Boarding School. She was the first Ojibwe from her reservation to attend the local public high school in the nearby Euro-American border town and, despite discrimination, or perhaps because of it, graduated as salutatorian of her class.
Retirement from the tribal clinic she helped establish on her reservation.
November 8, 2022 – voting day
for the most contentious race I’ve witnessed
My thoughts are with you, my grandchildren
Dear grandson, now the age I was
when your mother was born
you’ve survived the isolation of Covid lockdown,
the sorrow of losses – health, family, friends,
and the angst of peer pressure and teen hormones
Dear granddaughter, sweet Little Rose,
now taller than me and fearless as you learn how to drive
stoking my fears that you’ll drive like I once did –
something I’m unlikely to ever tell you
hoping you’ll make wiser and safer choices
The only armor I can offer you both
is a simple phrase – SENDING LOVE
dear grandson, dear granddaughter
I voted for candidates I sincerely hope
will prove to be courageous and trustworthy
when it comes to crafting a future world
where your mother and both of you
will find kindness, love, laughter,
and a sense of fulfillment
during long lives well-lived
It’s been almost two months since my last post, and perhaps this will be my last. It’s too soon to tell. I still have to finalize part one (11 chapters), with 3 more parts to follow (51 chapters in all). I feel a sense of urgency to finish. (I even had a dream about a future where a group of people were sitting around a campfire, their main source of light, reading a battered copy of my book. They were looking for ideas about how to rebuild a sense of community. Yeah, sure, I thought when I woke. It made me laugh…)
The world has changed in ways I could never have imagined in the eight and a half years I’ve been blogging. There are still moments of peace and beauty, kindness, and everyday acts of heroism but they’ve not been enough to stem the tide of cruelty, stupidity, and unreason that now dominate almost every social institution.
That’s why I have decided to finally retire from teaching. There’s no longer any wiggle room for me to challenge the oppressive status quo in dumbed-down standardized curricula. Academic institutions have increasingly become solely concerned with their survival, competing to maximize the number of students they can attract while cutting faculty and sacrificing the quality of the education they provide. It’s especially tragic when education fails to take a stand as libraries and school boards are under attack to make sure future generations have no opportunities to learn to think critically, feed their curiosity to learn more, or express their joy and wonder through creative arts.
Now, I prefer to garden,
A gift from squirrel gardeners
Potentilla, cone flowers (Echinacea), and nine bark in bloom
Carrots, tomatoes, and chard nearing harvest
to spend time with family,
My Nephew and his twin sons (3 ½), my granddaughter, and daughter
at the Park Point Beach on Lake Superior
Meeting my grandnephews for the first time as their dad introduces us.
My nephew and his sons at lunch – Sam (blue shirt) and Ben (black shirt)
A family gathering – my granddaughter, grandson, daughter, nephew, grandnephews, and me
to dog sit,
Sweet Cinnamon spent a few days with me while my daughter was traveling
and to work with two dear friends who are helping as readers for the book manuscript I’m editing, We Remember: Stories about Ojibwe Child Welfare. It’s based on a critical ethnographic study I conducted two decades ago. I had to put it aside many times for too many years in order to teach.
In the process of answering my readers’ questions about things I assumed everyone knows, I find myself having to explore issues more deeply and completely so I can explain them with greater clarity. The process has brought us closer, even though one friend lives in Oregon and the other in Alabama. They both feel the manuscript is compelling and still relevant today, a fact I find depressing. Yet that makes it all the more important for me to finish and share it while I can.
In the process of preparing the manuscript for possible publication, I realized that some of my older blog posts need to be kept private. They’re posts about the study findings. Few people have viewed those posts in recent years anyway. It will take some tedious time to change them from public to private, though. There are at least 30 of them!
I am deeply grateful for the blogging friends I had when the essays were posted. They provided incredibly helpful and supportive feedback, much like my manuscript readers now.
I am also grateful for the newer blogging friends who continue to share inspiration, knowledge, beauty, and kindness. I will try to keep up with your blogs even though I doubt I will post much in the future.
An aside, I’ve had to block comments on all posts older than 45 days because of a barrage of spammers this year – more than 100 a day on some days. The only open space left for comments on my blog will be this post for a short while and on the contact page. Some days, only one spammer finds it…
I can’t make any promises about my ability to respond to comments in a timely fashion, though. I need to stay in my own culture and “language” to be able to keep editing.
Sending my gratitude and best wishes to all. 💜
May 7, 2022
Up before dawn to get ready for class. I planned on reading the final two student papers before class after I took a shower. But I knew that what I had prepared for the two classes today wouldn’t do. This has been an extraordinarily difficult semester for students. Yet the students kept trying to do their best. I wondered how I could honor their hard work and as I showered, words flowed through me – “the art of letting go.”
Even though we are scheduled to see each other again in the fall, one never knows what surprises life may bring. Each moment together could be our last.
A Courageous Red Poll – May 2, 2022
A Curious Squirrel – May 2, 2022
The Art of Letting Go
We spend a lifetime learning the art of letting go
when we begin there’s so much we don’t know
about the highs and lows, the good times and bad
perhaps in the end grateful for all the chances we’ve had
to know both joy and sorrow, failure and success
to love and lose, to laugh and cry, to blame and bless
finally learning we have only this moment today
to create memories that will help us keep finding our way
I know that words cannot express the gifts that come from students. Even though I have read the articles I’ve assigned many times, the papers students wrote during the past semester pointed out things I had never noticed or considered. Each point of view was unique, each focused on different issues, and each was written in a different voice. The lesson of research, really – to explore and consider as many vantage points as possible when trying to understand an issue.
But the most profound gift was their inspiration. No matter how overburdened their lives were, they showed up and tried – tenacious, resilient, and willing to consider uncomfortable truths. They wanted to learn all they could because they believe it’s possible to help make the world a healthier, kinder, more peaceful place for all. It’s not just wars that have been an enduring presence throughout history, though. There have also been never-ending acts of creativity, kindness, and heroism, many of which are not mentioned in history books, or these days, by mainstream media. We cover that in classes, too.
Each group of students inspires me to keep learning and trying new things. Who could ask for a better job even though it also means learning the art of letting go?
The night after participating in a virtual political convention to choose candidates to endorse for state races, I awoke from a dream. The details remain a bit foggy, but I remember being in a car that I couldn’t steer. It was racing in never-ending circles, seemingly controlled by remote external forces. There was no clear purpose or destination in sight. Just unending circular movement in a dark, barren, asphalt-covered landscape.
It reminded me of the convention and my recent, though distant, involvement in the political process. The convention itself felt unwelcoming, focused on rules and the need to appear inclusive by making meaningful dialogue impossible. In fairness, though, I doubt there’s a way to effectively hold a Zoom meeting with 300-plus people, some of whom were seasoned political operatives with clear agendas, and many of whom were strangers and newcomers. All had different perspectives without any opportunities to connect. We were all just tiny faces and names on a screen. Those who jumped through the hoops to speak rarely seemed to care about focusing on things that would matter to the group or the state overall.
I couldn’t stay until the end, but there was one hopeful candidate with clear visions about what needed to be done – protecting clean water, building jobs through sustainable alternative energy initiatives, and supporting workers’ rights. She spoke with passion about hopeful possibilities and highlighted a successful track record for building necessary relationships to overcome political divides. Fortunately, two-thirds of the conference delegates voted to endorse her as the party candidate for state senate, the necessary threshold for approval of her candidacy.
I understand why many people are unhappy with politics and politicians. Why shouldn’t they be? I just wish more people knew at least a little more about US and global history before voting! And a little bit more about the dire situations the world is facing on every level right now from sources other than mainstream or social media. Maybe then people would be able to stand with others who stand for something positive, hopeful, and worthwhile. Until then, I fear we’ll continue going in circles as the world falls apart around us, unable to collectively act on issues that will affect generations yet to come.
I have noticed that community meetings are not really designed as listening sessions or opportunities to create a collective sense of dignity and belonging. Yet the choices are clear. One is the world we have now, where people are programmed to continue in a perpetual winner-take-all tug-of-war to impose their ideologies on others in two party systems that pit the 99 percent against each other for petty reasons. The other is one where the 99 percent work together to build a world where life, love, and laughter matter more than power, money, and things. Maybe then we could finally set a course forward toward a kinder, more peaceful world and steer our collective journey in the same direction…
on this cold April morning
birdsong fills the air
instead of bringing joy this year
it seems to signal despair
a warning of dire times ahead
9:24 AM, April 14, 2022
birds appear to know something we don’t
trying desperately to tell us before it’s too late
flocking to places that they hope they’ll be safe
to fly free, find a sanctuary, food, and a mate
lives threatened by the cost of hubris and greed
by humans who think they can improve nature
by tinkering with seed
I wonder as I listen to birdsong and cries
if the world of the future will grow silent
and dreary with beauty’s demise
3:47 PM, April 14, 2022
“Amid outbreaks of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI), the University of Minnesota’s Raptor Center is urging individuals to help mitigate its spread by taking down their bird feeders and other apparatus that birds use to congregate.” Source: Kare11.com
“The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) confirmed several findings of the presence of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) in wild waterfowl in the Atlantic flyways in January 2022. On February 8, 2022 APHIS confirmed H5N1 HPAI in a commercial turkey flock in Dubois County, Indiana. Since then it has been confirmed in multiple states and flock types. The USDA updates the latest HPAI detections on its website.
“The first cases of H5N1 in Minnesota were confirmed on March 25, 2022.
“The virus has not caused human illness. According to the CDC, Recent Bird Flu Infections in U.S. Wild Birds and Poultry Pose a Low Risk to the Public.
Edited Screenshot to show Duluth in relation to HPAI outbreak areas – Source
Recently, it’s been difficult for me to post what I write or visit others’ blogs. And I’ve been reflecting about why that might be. I remember how I answered the question “Why do I write?” in a free course I took on WordPress years ago, Blogging 101. “I write because Mickey can’t.”
Mickey was confined to a life in a nursing home. A work accident had left him paralyzed and struggling to frame his thoughts in words. One had to slow down and listen carefully to make sense of his new, unfamiliar language. Too few nursing home staff had the time, interest, and/or skill to do so. As a mother with a young daughter to care for, I worked the “graveyard shift.” I had time to learn Mickey’s language and decipher what he needed. Respect. Soft hands. Kindness. Presence. And laughter.
I still write because Mickey can’t. But now I realize I write and teach for the sake of others who can’t speak, either. The earth, the trees, the lakes, and the rivers who give us life but are not honored for doing so. The plants and animals that feed us. The birds, butterflies and bees that give us beauty. What I write is shared for free with anyone who happens to read or listen.
The small salary I make when teaching comes from students who often assume debts they may have to carry for decades, so I try to make what I share worth the cost. With the trend of declining enrollments, it’s uncertain if this signals the end of my teaching career. But writing and teaching have never been about money, power, or fame. Sharing is just celebrating life.
Building and planting new gardens – June 24, 2013
These days, words and teaching are not enough for me. The things that I feel are important to say may be lost in a cacophony of voices competing for attention. I care about the world my daughter, grandchildren, students, and the generations yet to come will inherit. I find myself on steep learning curves to explore more direct ways to share. I’ve agreed to serve as a delegate for the political party that I find to be less toxic to select a candidate the party should support for the state senate. As a community and state, we’re facing uphill battles on environmental and social justice issues that need to be championed by the most capable, tenacious, ethical servants of the people.
There are no guarantees of success for those who are willing to courageously propose alternatives that reverse the corporate exploitation of people and the environment, but it’s crucial that those who want to wield power, or those who are forced to by default, honestly represent the best interests of people and the environment who are not able to speak for themselves. But politics are always a gamble. There’s no way to predict how people will react to wielding power or how effective they will be when dealing with others who have conflicting views.
That means the state of the world is also up to each of us, too. I believe we have responsibility to do what we can to learn and act in ethical, well-informed ways. That belief inspired me to volunteer for several community-based initiatives to help explore what’s happening from many different vantage points. I’ll explain these initiatives in a moment because others might find these various opportunities intriguing as well.
Changing landscape after the willow was damaged in a winter storm – June 4, 2018
First, though, I feel it’s important to mention that I have been fascinated by the “natural” environment all of my life. As a little girl, I preferred the woods, stream, and pond near my house more than the company of children my own age. It was a place of wonder to explore and a sanctuary away from the noise and busyness of my home and neighborhood. As a teen, I preferred the company of elders and spending time on the Allegheny River that flowed in front of my family’s musty summer cottage. When I attended college, my goal was to study ecology, a subject that wasn’t offered yet. Instead, my world was expanded through the discovery of other cultures and literature I had not read before. Ultimately, I ended up working in jobs that applied ecological frameworks to human society and institutions.
Yet, I just passed the age marker that signals the importance of doing what I love the most while I still can – learning new things about the wonders of life and sharing them with anyone who will listen. When my mother was this age, 75, she was mid-stage in the painstakingly gradual loss of choices due to Alzheimer’s disease. As her legal guardian for fourteen years, I witnessed her heartrending transition from a gifted nurse to someone who could no longer speak a clear sentence, moving her from her lakefront home to congregate elder housing and then to round-the-clock assisted care.
So I decided to do something I love. Keep learning. There are so many things I don’t know. Recent patterns of drought and deluge have compacted the soil in my yard. I tested some soil last year because the blueberry bushes were struggling, and I found that the soil was extremely alkaline despite the surrounding pine trees. Last year’s extended drought meant frequent watering, so I’ll need to test the tap water, too, to see if the ph-balance of the water affected the reading. I plan to continue exploring how to achieve a healthy acid/alkaline balance and improve the overall health of the soil using natural, doable, affordable methods.
Gardens recovering after some rain – July 29, 2021
I also want to gain knowledge and skills that will help with significant climate transitions that will become more likely given ongoing environmental destruction, over-consumption by wealthier people and nations, and changing weather patterns. I’ve taken a few first steps.
I joined the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network, CoCoRaHS for short, and took the obligatory “skywarn” training from the National Weather Service. I have become a “trained weather spotter.” The required “WeatherYourWay” rain gauge for CoCoRaHS volunteers to use for measuring precipitation is finally out of its box, waiting to be set up. Perhaps my grandson can help me put in the recommended 4” X 4” post to mount it once the ground here thaws.
Here’s a little bit more about CoCoRaHS:
“… CoCoRaHS is a unique, non-profit, community-based network of volunteers of all ages and backgrounds working together to measure and map precipitation (rain, hail and snow). By using low-cost measurement tools, stressing training and education, and utilizing an interactive Web-site, our aim is to provide the highest quality data for natural resource, education and research applications. We are now in all fifty states.”
I also joined “scistarter,” an organization for volunteers who want to learn more and participate in “citizen science.” There are many intriguing topics to study. Here’s a link to explore possible projects: https://blog.scistarter.org/featured-projects/2022/03/five-spring-tacular-projects-to-get-you-outside-this-season/
The topic I chose to focus on as a beginning is “iseechange.org.” Following is the brief overview from the website:
GOAL Our climate is changing — so are we.
TASK Share your experiences and collect data to help our communities.
WHERE Global, anywhere on the planet.
What you see in your backyard, neighborhood, and city is important to our understanding of how climate change and weather affect our communities. Your observations and block-by-block insights can help cities, engineers and local organizations advocate for and create solutions to climate challenges.
We welcome and host observations from people in 118 countries around the world and counting. We are also currently working with partners in select cities on specialized investigations.
If you or your community has a question or hypothesis about how climate is changing your area, you can also use your ISeeChange account to collect data and answer those questions.
The only thing certain about the future is that changes will continue. It seems to me that the only way to prepare for change is to learn what we can now and share what we learn with others. I am grateful for the chance to do so and for all I learn from you when I have time to visit your blogs. Sending my best wishes to all.
Here’s a list of the links embedded above in case you are interested in learning more:
In these days of banning books, I have been contemplating how to deal with out-of-date textbooks that nobody wants. Not because they’re risqué, they’re just out-of-date. It makes me wonder what to do with the manuscript I began writing in 2015. The first draft is still waiting to be edited when I can find time. In the meantime, I often wonder whether the book would be of any use to others in the times ahead because it may be too academic. And if it does have potential to be useful, it’s doubtful to survive censorship because it’s as historically accurate as I can make it and critical of colonial domination.
But there is still the question of those textbooks that have grown obsolete. In a continuing process of decluttering, textbooks are next on my list. It seems that only the pages can be recycled, but the covers and bindings must go. So, the process of unbinding has begun. It’s not as easy as one would think. Here’s a photo of my first attempt.
It’s the fourth edition of Social forces and aging by Robert C. Atchley (1985). (In case anyone is eager to read it, it was published by Wadsworth, Inc.). I also have the fifth edition of this text in the pile of castaways, but I kept the eighth edition in the bookcase for now, perhaps out of sentimentality (or senility?). I suspect I used it when I taught a course on aging and mental health at my alma mater after graduating with a master’s degree. That’s when I discovered I love working with students of all ages.
I couldn’t resist a final peek at the content of the book in the tedious deconstruction process. I happened to notice the following at the beginning of Chapter 15: Deviance and Social Control…
All societies use general standards to judge the appropriateness of a given behavior, human condition, or situation. If a departure from conventional customs or practice is seen as merely unusual, we call it “eccentricity.” But if the departure is so great that the behavior or condition would be condemned, then we call it deviance. Deviance is always defined from the point of view of a particular normative structure. In large societies such as ours there are many subgroups and conflicting standards of behavior. The same act can be defined as deviant by one group, as eccentric by another, and as “normal” by yet another. For example, what is seen as deviant in a suburban neighborhood is quite different from what is seen as deviant on skid row.
Norms are by definition ideas about how human behavior ought to be, and it is no surprise that societies set up mechanisms to prevent and control both the incidence and degree of deviance. Social roles, socialization, and the internalization of norms are all important processes in the prevention of deviance. Formal social controls that seek to limit and discourage deviance include laws, rules, regulations, and authority systems. Informal social controls include customs such as ridicule, disapproval, and ostracism. (Atchley, 1985, p. 286)
While I believe it’s important to know how people viewed things in the past, and what they were programmed to believe, this book has served its purpose and deserves to be repurposed. There is a pile of other texts waiting for their turn. But the topic of this quote stayed with me. I’m currently reading something that speaks to the profundity of cultural differences – I miss the rain in Africa: Peace Corps as a third act: A tale of transformation, by Nancy Daniel Wesson (2021), Modern History Press. I came across a passage about the challenges of communicating across cultures, even between people who believe they speak the same English language. I can’t quote the passage here because it would be out of context, but it brought to mind a passage in a different book that shares “an anecdote from World War II” (Estés, 1992, p. 343).
Clarissa Pinkola Estés recounts an experience she had when she was twelve, spending a day with extended family. She heard her mother and aunts shrieking with laughter as they sat “sunning themselves” and was curious to know what was so funny. While her mother and aunts later dozed in the sun, Estés picked up the magazine one of her aunts had been reading out loud and discovered the passage quoted below.
General Eisenhower was going to visit his troops in Rwanda. [It might have been Borneo. It might have been General MacArthur. The names meant little to me then.] The governor wanted all native women to stand by the side of the dirt road and cheer and wave to welcome Eisenhower as he drove by in his jeep. The only problem was that the native women never wore any clothes other than a necklace of beads and sometimes a little thong belt.
No, no, that would never do. So the governor called the headman of the tribe and told him the predicament. “No worry,” said the headman. If the governor could provide several dozen skirts and blouses, he would see to it that the women dressed in them for this one-time special event. And these the governor and local missionaries managed to provide.
However, on the day of the great parade, and just minutes before Eisenhower was to drive down the long road in his jeep, it was discovered that while all of the native women dutifully wore the skirts, they did not like the blouses, and had left them at home. So now all the women were lined up and down both sides of the road, skirted but bare-breasted, and with not another stitch on and no underwear at all.
Well the governor had apoplexy when he heard and he angrily summoned the headman, who assured his that the headwoman had conferred with him, and assured him that the women had agreed on a plan to cover their breasts when the general drove by. “Are you sure?” yelled the governor.
“I am very, very sure,” said the headman.
Well, there was no time left to argue and we can only guess at General Eisenhower’s reaction as his jeep came chugging by and woman after bare-breasted woman gracefully lifted up the front of her full skirt and covered her face with it. (Estés, 1992, pp. 343-344)
I have to admit this made me laugh as well. It still does. These days I think we all need more opportunities to laugh. Yet, I know it’s easier to laugh at other’s expense, and harder to look at the humorous side of things we’ve been socialized to accept as “normal.”
Initially, I give people the benefit of the doubt and trust what they tell me or write is true from their perspective. I’ve learned, though, that’s not always the case. Over time, I’ve become a lot more skeptical, but I wasn’t as an undergraduate student when I first read about a strange tribe in my anthropology class, the Nacirema.
Horace Miner’s (1956) article, “Body Ritual among the Nacirema” helped teach me that lesson and others.
Nacirema culture is characterized by a highly developed market economy which has evolved in a rich natural habitat. While much of people’s time is devoted to economic pursuits, a large part of the fruits of these labors and a considerable portion of the day are spent in ritual activity. The focus of this activity is the human body, the appearance and health of which loom as a dominant concern in the ethos of the people. While such a concern is certainly not unusual, its ceremonial aspects and associated philosophy are unique.
The fundamental belief underlying the whole system appears to be that the human body is ugly and that its natural tendency is to debility and disease. Incarcerated in such a body, man’s only hope is to avert these characteristics through the use of the powerful influences of ritual and ceremony. Every household has one or more shrines devoted to this purpose… While each family has at least one such shrine, the rituals associated with it are not family ceremonies but are private and secret. The rites are normally only discussed with children, and then only during the period when they are being initiated into these mysteries… (Miner, 1956, p. 503)
In conclusion, mention must be made of certain practices which have their base in native esthetics but which depend on the pervasive aversion to the natural body and its functions. There are ritual fasts to make fat people thin and ceremonial feasts to make thin people fat. Still other rites are used to make women’s breasts larger if they are small, and smaller if they are large. General dissatisfaction with breast shape is symbolized in the fact that the ideal form is virtually outside the range of human variation… (Miner, 1956, p. 506)
Wikipedia says the following about Miner’s work.
“In the paper, Miner describes the Nacirema, a little-known tribe living in North America. The way in which he writes about the curious practices that this group performs distances readers from the fact that the North American group described actually corresponds to modern-day Americans of the mid-1950s.”
(For those who don’t already know this, “Nacirema” is “American” spelled backwards.)
These two authors, Miner and Estés, have something in common. They deal with topics that are rarely discussed in polite “normative” conversations. (I think Atchley of old might agree with that assessment, although Miner’s article had been published long before Atchley’s text.) Their published works will probably be censored in the coming years because they present views that could easily be classified as deviant by those leading the pack to enforce their seemingly joyless point-of-view. After all, hearty laughter and joy signify freedom from control – and they serve a valuable role as a “medicine for tough times” (Estés, 2992, p. 344).
Estés makes this point quite clearly when she describes the aftereffects of reading about Eisenhower’s welcome.
I lay under the chaise [lounge] stifling my laughter. It was the silliest story I had ever heard. It was a wonderful story, a thrilling story. But intuitively, I also knew it was contraband, so I kept it to myself for years and years. And sometimes in the midst of hard times, during tense times, even before taking tests in college, I would think of the women from Rwanda covering their faces with their skirts, and no doubt laughing into them. And I would laugh and feel centered, strong, and down-to-earth…
When the laughter helps without doing harm, when the laughter lightens, realigns, reorders, reasserts power and strength, this is the laughter that causes health. When the laughter makes people glad they are alive, happy to be here, more conscious of love, heightened with eros, when it lifts sadness and severs them from anger, that is sacred… (pp. 344-345, emphasis mine).
I hope these stories helped lighten the heaviness of these times, at least for a moment…
Here’s a video that may help inspire laughter as well – Loretta LaRoche, “The Joy of Stress”
Wishing you all much joy and laughter to light the darkness in the days ahead.
Atchley, R. C. (1985). Social forces and aging (4th ed.). Wadsworth, Inc.
Estés. P. C. (1992). Women who run with the wolves: Myths and stories of the wild woman archetype. Ballantine Books.
Miner, H. (1956). Body ritual among the Nacirema. American Anthropologist, 58(3), 503-507. (Link to copyright-free download here.)
Wesson, N. D. (2021). I miss the rain in Africa: Peace Corps as a third act: A tale of transformation. Modern History Press.
ah, the challenge of teaching
during overwhelming times
please let me be here now
and take time
we only have
these precious moments together
two hours every other week
it’s not enough
but it’s what we have
I watch and wonder
how I can help you
rekindle curiosity and learn
when you’re too weary and anxious
to be fully present
let’s take the first steps together
to unpack a daunting assignment
step by step
take a few minutes to read
the article title and think
what do the authors assume
about the people and issues they studied?
those few precious words say a lot
about how researchers frame their work
it’s the first step for analyzing anything
and it’s too easy to move on
without taking time to realize
that this is the most important thing
they will have to say
about the assumptions, values, and worldviews
which (perhaps unconsciously)
guided the purpose and design
for the steps and details that follow
can one judge the quality of a work by its title?
the title, along with the abstract and key words,
offer a snapshot of authors’ views
about people and causes of problems
and clues about the trustworthiness
of their work and interpretations
do they encourage exploratory solutions
which are respectful and inclusive?
does their work have the potential
to enhance community connections and resilience?
“Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.
Let me keep company always with those who say
‘Look!’ and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads”
(repeated because images can’t be translated)